Simply based upon his last two directorial features now, you can’t help but sense Drew Goddard might feel a tinge of subconscious discomfort with directing, at least with the ‘looking’ aspect that directing inherently comprises as a career choice. That’s not to imply his latest film, the Tarantino-esque, twisty, slick yet gritty neo-noir Bad Times at the El Royale, elicits a sense of apprehension toward the project he’s visualizing, however, as the film represents a relatively young writing-directing talent confidently trying to make positive strides in his capabilities as a writer-director, playing with narrative structure, linearity, thematic depth and world-building in spite of predominantly taking place in a singular, isolated location. Though in truth, those last two were never facets that particularly eluded him in his previous ventures, and the similarities between this film and The Cabin in the Woods don’t stop there.
Just as Cabin in the Woods addressed the relationship between genre and audience, how moviegoers consume and participate in horror films as well as genre conventions, Bad Times at the El Royale additionally tackles the often-times questionable entertainment value found through gazing, voyeurism and sensationalist storytelling through media – at least, partially. There’s even more sociocultural and political subtext to grasp in terms of government surveillance (with plenty of nods to the Nixon administration), racism and blind obedience to a charismatic, but monstrous leader (hmmmmm…), but Goddard’s latest is primarily intent on sidling up alongside Cabin as its natural subtextual successor and companion piece, particularly when it comes to the thematic juxtaposition of sight and power imbalances, or rather power, in general. And just like any other companion piece, it doesn’t particularly explore its primary themes any more meaningfully than its predecessor already had, but instead splashes them onto a different canvas with which to excavate other relevant ideas the predecessor couldn’t.
Where El Royale and Cabin diverge, if only slightly, outside of genre aesthetic and its influence on story structure, is their treatment of their respective covert ‘Big Brother’-type overseers and other authority figures and how they enact said authority. While Cabin consists of a more vaguely hopeful approach where the ‘government’ stiffs directing all of the madness often display a reluctance to their group’s missive, or at least the enjoyment one might derive from their line of work, engaging in practices that distract them from the horrors wrought from their flip of a switch, El Royale’s approach to power and its abuse is decidedly, and appropriately for its genre, more cynical, featuring protagonists and minor characters who use supremacy in a way that gleefully affirms their standing over another, inevitably conflating power and influence with desire and perverse sexual satisfaction and no doubt waving about the film’s infrequent feminist cues.
And while both films inexorably end with the subjugated flipping the tables on their oppressors, there’s a sense in El Royale that the abuse of power, sight as knowledge as power and the certainty that the dissemination of information that will become sensationalized gossip disguised as public record all represent cogs in a vicious cycle that ought to be ended, which just so happens to be the only explanation I have for why certain minor and major details were left to each viewers’ shadowy imaginations rather than revealed and explained, making this film the latest graduate of the A24 It Comes at Night School of Misleading Marketing. But in all fairness, I appreciate that fact much more the second time through, not only in that it eliminates another element with which detractors could have used to symbolically beat Goddard over the head for an increasingly uncomfortable closeness to Cabin, but also because it represents a further implicit condemnation of power as victimization and, truthfully, would have only distracted from the remaining plot in the final act and hindered its pacing had their presences been more explicit.
In the interest of transparency, because available box office figures indicate you very likely haven’t seen this movie yet assuming you’re still interested, Bad Times is a film best enjoyed twice through rather than with a solitary visit to tirelessly wrap your mind around. It may offer as many popcorn thrills – especially down the stretch – as it does sociocultural musings with understood, if also understated connections to modern times, but it’s the unsuspecting density of its thematic and emotional undercurrents as well as the expected concentration of character and plot twists and turns revealing deeper layers of blood and tear-soaked mystery, intrigue and motivation that seemingly require even more thorough surface evaluation. It’s the sort of film that ably proves Goddard’s ability as a filmmaker to seamlessly blend niche genre appeal and broader thrills with ambitious and fluent subtext, though that ultimately doesn’t hold it back from occasionally getting in its own way.
Another core element of the film’s philosophy centers itself on life’s arbitrary competing dualities – life and death, right and wrong, good and evil, god or no god as one Chris Hemsworth monologue heavy-handedly beats into our skulls – expressed visually as well as verbally – plenty of lines are repeated by different characters later on in varying contexts, not unlike Cabin’s use of “Let’s get this party started.” Such almost feels like the easy way out with regards to character development in a story like this, especially given the marketing’s insistence upon the idea that each of the seven protagonists harbors a secret that will impart some unpredictability into the madness as each one does whatever they can to protect it. But not only does the storytelling become more conventional and predictable after the midpoint, before which the film takes its merry time exposing what each protagonist’s secret is and how it influences their demeanor and actions, it underserves a chance at meaningful intellectual nuance in this regard.
When it comes to narrative complexity, Bad Times doesn’t really do so much as extend itself one standard deviation above the brutally misguided inherent good vs. inherent evil binary, suggesting that while both extremes can exist – Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene Sweet, the only character without a life-altering secret, occupying the former and Hemsworth’s Billy Lee the latter – most stand in between two poles on a finicky thing called a spectrum, as if it had merely skimmed the readings for classwork on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. And while this sort of simplicity works for engaging with certain characters, particularly those it actually takes the time to flesh out – Sweet and Jeff Bridges’s Father Flynn being the only two, really – it highlights the wanting feeling inescapably engendered by the rest of the story’s intriguing characters whose compositions are left perhaps intentionally thinner. Granted, in a story such as this one, there are bound to be protagonists left slighter than others for fear of the project becoming an over-bloated mess, which is perhaps why our investment in them might have improved had Goddard not essentially telegraphed which characters would be most irrelevant later on.
And it’s slow; about as slow as it’s taken me to tell you that it’s slow, which isn’t all that surprising given the first and second act’s proclivity for rewinding its present events to tell the initial dramatic explosion through various perspectives and flashback exposition relaying aforementioned themes specific to each protagonist and their constitution, in addition to feelings of vulnerability, guilt and existential crossroads. Even through the film’s final act, it can’t resist the urge to interrupt the action for overlong instances of, in one case, sledgehammer subtle commentary on higher powers exploiting those beneath them with simplistic, archetypal narratives of what constitutes true morality, and in the other, a needless segment of character development that may have had grander intentions with regards to the emblematic connection between power and violence (think the Vietnam War) but in reality comes across as a screenwriting convenience to quickly tie up the mayhem.
But being deathly dull in segments doesn’t harm Bad Times for too much worse. In all honesty, with a second viewing under my belt, it’s difficult to suggest any of its flaws weigh it down for very long. Part of it might be knowing what to expect, and yet the film as a whole does what any good feature this focused upon plot and character intricacies should: ensure that it is truly immersive, and on that front, Goddard’s film is almost as captivating as Cabin – solid performances by the entire ensemble further enable the immersion, even if it’s the sort of project best suited to weekly or bingeworthy unveilings in the form of a Peak TV limited miniseries. Now, we’re merely left to wonder which subsection of specific and peculiar genre fandom Goddard will craft a visual love letter for next, and to Mr. Goddard, it’s safe to say we can’t take our eyes off of you.